Untangling law, Law, and LAW
Isaiah 55:10-11, Romans 8:1-11 (July 16, 2017)
We’re not cursed to damnation, but carried to salvation, by God’s LAW
My wife, Char, and I do not yet have grandchildren. Char’s sister has 4. The youngest recently had her first birthday. I wasn’t there, but Char was, and I’ve already seen the pictures of last Sunday’s birthday party on Facebook. This little girl, who has the imperial-sounding name “Octavia”, looks very sweet and innocent. I’m sure that she’s free of sinful thoughts and actions. We like to think of babies as being free from sin. After all, what have they DONE that was under their control? But there’s a teaching in Christian Theology that has been around for more than 1,500 years which tells us that babies are sinful from birth. There’s eve a verse in Psalm 51 in which a poet tells God that he was sinful from the moment he was conceived inside his mother.
The teaching of original sin was formulated by St. Augustine, an African man who around the year 400 CE. When young he lived what he characterized as a wild and sinful life In his 20s he came to faith in God. He was a strong philosopher and a good writer. He eventually became a bishop of the church. A man of his times and a man of faith, he looked at society around him, and reflected on his inward experience and read his Bible. He believed that all the things he read in the Bible happened exactly the way they were written down and that Adam and Eve were real people. He eventually put it all together and “explained” things. Of the many things that came out of his thinking, one was “Original Sin”. According to this belief, we have no choice. Being human, we are sinners. We get it from our fathers and mothers. It can only be undone by being baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Different churches have different rules about baptism. The most “free” ones say that any Christian can baptize anyone else, so long as they use water and the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A “middle position” says that this should happen with other believers present, you can’t do it in private, but it can be a “special event” like a wedding. My own tradition says that it should happen as part of regularly scheduled worship where a sermon has been preached. The Roman Catholic Church is more strict. One who baptizes another must be a properly ordained male priest. BUT, when you insert “Original Sin” into the process, you bump up against the possibility that a baby could be born and be sent to hell eternally because of dying before being baptized. In those cases, even the Roman Catholic church allows that any Christian, male or female, using water and the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, can baptize a newborn baby who is about to die.
Enough of that. I’m not going to defend the teaching about Original Sin, but neither will I attack it too much. It describes the experience of human life in which we see ourselves and everyone around us; wrapped and trapped in sin. How did we get that way? I don’t know. But I’m acquainted with the power of sin in my own life, but rather than a saint from the year 400, I’ll accept the description of a fictional character in a 20th century American novel who put it this way, “You ain’t got to. You can’t help it.”
I The law of sin and death
A law can be a rule that we have to follow: you must have a passport to get into or out of the country; you must be licensed if you will drive a car; etc. It can also be a description of a condition which seems always to be true: “The law of gravity” “The law of entropy.” “To each action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” The condition we know as “sin” can be seen as one of these laws. Give it a “little l” for the purpose of discussion. Though we don’t have to sin, but we can’t help it. Sometimes it feels like “sin” is the only thing we CAN do. And sometimes that scares us because living without control has the power to destroy us.
Different cultures have their histories. Mine has the days of the cowboys when White people from the East of the United States took the land in the west of the country from the people who had been there for hundreds and thousands of years. There was little or no set of rules to stop anyone from doing evil to anyone else. The expression “the wild west” means a condition without control. Other cultures and societies may have similar eras when restraints were weak on the “edges of civilization.” But this is not “lawlessness.” It’s a situation where the “little l law” is the only law. In Romans 8:3 we find it called, “weak human nature” or “sin in human nature”. The original language, translated exactly, says, “flesh” (meaning the fact that we are meat). We find it again in verses 5, 6, 7 &8. We’re told that it controls our minds, results in death, makes us enemies of God and unable to please God.
Life “controlled” by the “little l” law is sometimes described as “a rat race” and as “dog eat dog.” Often it’s lived by trying to get even with someone whose own weak human nature has offended your own weak human nature.
II The Law of Religion and Society
Human nature is weak, but it is not helpless. We have the ability to deal with life controlled by “little l” law. We create and enforce “Big L” Law. Often this comes with the power of a religion. “Big L” Law is similar across religions and societies. This leads some people to say, “it doesn’t matter which religion you choose, so long as it makes you ‘good’.” (and “good” is defined as “well behaved.”)
When enough people occupy space where “little l” law is the way of life, they will arrange for “big L” Law to be implemented. In the wild west they appointed sheriffs and got the “settled places” in the east to send judges. In Chinese there’s an expression about places where there’s too much “little l” and not enough “Big L” law. “Heaven is high and the emperor is far away.” Because in our weak human nature, we are drawn to hurting ourselves and each other, human societies have created systems of Law to promote good behavior and punish bad behavior. In the Middle-east, before there was the Bible, there was Hammurabi, a king whose law code looks very much like what we read in the Bible. It’s similar enough so that one can easily imagine that the good faithful people who brought us the Bible used Hammurabi’s code as reference material. But this “Big L” law, though it could promote the good and punish the bad, was still not fully satisfactory. We read in Romans 8:3 today that it could not overcome “little l” law (human nature). That doesn’t mean that “Big L” law wasn’t useful. In verse 4 it’s even called “righteous”. It shows us what is right, and helps us to see where we are wrong. “Big L” Law may push us to obey so that we won’t be punished, but, at least we obeyed. “Big L” Law also clearly points out where we have offended, and results in us feeling guilty of doing wrong. It’s very natural. Put any of us next to someone who is “righteous”, and it won’t be long before we begin to see our own failures by comparison. But making people obey or feel guilty for not obeying doesn’t really do us much good. We remain “bad people who feel bad about being bad.” At the beginning of verse 3 we’re told that “Big L” law could not do away with sin.
Sin gets to us first, and becomes the way we live (in the form of “little l” law). “Big L” law comes to us later, and it is no fun. Though it promotes good behavior, it makes us feel bad. As a young man, I feared life by “little l” law, but hated the controls of “Big L” law. Whenever I saw the word “Law” in the Bible, I thanked God that I could live by something else, something better, BUT I COULDN’T FIGURE OUT WHAT THAT WAS! So I settled for the idea of learning and obeying ALL of the rules, even though I hated being controlled by them.
In Psalm 51:12 the poet asks God “Give me again the joy that comes from your salvation and make me willing to obey you.” That was my prayer, but I didn’t like what followed in verse 13: “then I will teach sinners your commands and they will turn back to you.” Because I didn’t like the idea of a life of following commands,. I was joyless, and worse than that, when I WAS able to follow the commands, I became judgmental of anyone who didn’t keep them as well as I did. I lost friends. Worse even than that, I wasn’t able to keep those commands, anyway.
III The way of God Which we meet in Christ
This brings us to something that is all through Romans 8:1-11 that we read today, but for which I have to create a different way of writing the word. LAW, all three letters are big ones.
God’s LAW is described in verse 1 as “life in union with Christ Jesus”. In verse 2 it’s described as “the law of the Spirit which brings us life” and the author of these verses tells us that it has set him free from “little l” law. In verses 5 and 6 we about it as “living as the Spirit tells us to” which “results in life and peace.” Verses 10 and 11 assure us that the presence of the Spirit of Christ in us puts us right with God and guarantees us life even though, because of “little l” law, our bodies die.
I missed this as a young man for a couple of reasons. One was that “little l” law was running me, and the other was that “Big L” law, though joyless, was easy to learn. BUT, because whenever I saw the word “Law” I immediately resisted, so the idea of teaching God’s Law to people put me off. What I lacked, and what I hope we can find today in LAW, is the power of God’s love, which is God’s way and is God’s LAW. Looking around for something to compare it to, I’m settling here for water in nature. (But be careful, because any comparison is faulty.)
Water falls on all of us as rain; on good people, bad people, smart people, stupid people, rich and poor. It’s like “little l” law. We all get wet. But after rain falls onto the earth, it runs into streams and rivers which guide it. Streams and rivers are like “Big L” Law. They control the water and carry it to places where it is needed. God’s way, LAW, is awesome in power. It is like the current in the ocean. There’s one that flows through Indonesia around Timor to refresh the Indian Ocean. There’s another that circulates in the North Pacific, crossing east to west through Kiribati, turning North past Japan and back East to America where it flows south again. Before the days of powered shipping, the currents had as much to do with getting things from “here to there” as the winds. Currents are deep, powerful, yet gentle. Like God’s LAW.
How are we to live? If we allow what we read from Romans 8 this afternoon to guide and shape our thinking, we’ll find three sorts of law in our lives. The one that takes hold of us even when we’re still babies is the one with the “little l”. Though nothing requires us to follow it, we can’t not follow. It leads us to competition with each other, and to death.
The next Law has a “Big L”, and it controls us, but we’re not happy about it. If we succeed with this one, we only find our options (all of which are open in the “little l” law), limited. If we succeed with it, we’ll mainly judge ourselves as good, and everyone else as bad.
Both of these laws operate in us, but neither leads to life, and to life eternal. The wonderful gift of God to us is the “LAW” which we meet in Jesus Christ, who came to us, setting aside the power of both “law” and “Law” over us, and opening the way for us to live by God’s Word (which is much larger than the bible). We remain weak, but we are no longer slaves to “little l” law. We remain controlled, but though we can’t keep it, we’re not responsible to keep all of the rules in the “Big L” law. Christ’s spirit dwells in us, and we are carried along in the powerful love of God.
We read a couple of verses of the Old Testament this afternoon, too. Isaiah 55:10 & 11. The comparison there, of God’s word to water in the form of snow and rain, is helpful. These things come down from the sky to water the earth. They make crops grow to provide what we need in order to live. And that’s how God’s way is It is FOR us. It is given TO all of us. It never fails to do what God plans for it.
Whatever “little l” law and “Big L” law do in your lives, remember that these are nothing compared to what God’s way, what God’s word in Christ, what God’s LAW in each of us through the Holy Spirit, can do for us, and for this world.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN